Book #68: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Here is my one word, highly academic, response to Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Five years from now, if you ask me about some of the books I’ve read from the Time list, I’m sure there will be many that I’ve forgotten about. That’s what the blog is for—to help me remember.
But this is one of those novels that I won’t forget. Everything about Their Eyes Were Watching God is memorable—the story, the characters, the settings, the writing—oh, the writing.
Zora Neale Hurston’s writing is so ridiculously good, and the story itself is so strong, I wonder how this woman hasn’t been given more praise than she has. How did she not get “rediscovered” until the 1970s? What’s wrong with us?
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God, here’s a quick summary: The story follows the up and down adventures—mostly centered around her relationships with men–of Janie Crawford.
Janie is an attractive, African-American woman in the rural south, and she’s searching for her independence as a woman during that time. However, the men she marries and the communities she lives in—with their expectations of her as a woman—are some of the obstacles she encounters along the way.
Janie’s relationship issues highlight the tension between her pursuit to find herself and the expectations both the men and society have put on her.
On top of that, with each relationship, she becomes the center point of “porch gossip” in the towns she lives in. Because she’s almost always the most desirable woman in town, her every move is scrutinized. It’s a tough life being Janie Crawford.
A few passages from Their Eyes Were Watching God that describe Janie Crawford:
“She had waited all her life for something, and it had killed her when it found her.”
“Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.”
“She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.”
“She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.”
Janie finally finds what seems to be true love with a man who loves her as she is, rather than who he wants her to be. But you know how these things go. Classic novels can’t end all happy and positive, right? Rabies has to enter the picture at some point, right? Wait…rabies?
I’ll leave it at that, if you haven’t read the book.
The highlight of Their Eyes Were Watching God was, by far, the beauty of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing. She’s a Van Gogh, a Monet, with the pen or the typewriter or whatever it was she used to write. Again, tell me this isn’t a fabulous opening to a novel.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
And that style. She’s descriptive and philosophical and contemplative, all at the same time. It carries on throughout this novel.
Other than what I’ve read about ZNH in the last few weeks, I know very little about her. We’ve talked about her politics and how she changed African-American culture. She certainly was passionate in her views, but she doesn’t come across as preachy in this novel, and that seems like it would’ve been easy for her to do.
If I could travel back in time and have a beer with one author, that one author might be Zora Neale Hurston. She just seems so genuine and true to herself… and so freaking articulate.
That’s what makes her death all the more sad. This is a topic I’ll revisit on the blog soon, but basically Hurston died alone in a nursing home after falling into obscurity as a writer for years.
She was essentially forgotten until Alice Walker rediscovered her and then actually took the time to find her unmarked grave. Just think about that—Zora Neale Hurston had an unmarked grave! How messed up is that?
To wrap it up, this is a top 10 book for me…maybe higher. Check out my rankings to see where I placed it. At the moment, I’m not sure.
I would highly recommend Their Eyes Were Watching God to anyone.
Opening Line: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
The Meaning: The title comes from the passage I outlined yesterday. “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” A group is huddled in an abandoned home, waiting out a hurricane, measuring “their puny might against [God’s].”
Highlights: Everything. The characters, especially Janie and Tea Cake, are lovable despite and, really, because of their flaws. Hurston just makes you feel at home in this novel, even if it’s from a time and a place that you’ve never been. Her writing is immaculate. She doesn’t preach even though you know she could if she chose to.
Lowlights: I don’t know that I have one. Rabies maybe?
Memorable Line: There’s just so many. But if I had to pick one I’ll go with this: ““If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all.”
Final Thoughts: I’ve praised this novel as much as I can. Their Eyes Were Watching God is an amazing novel. If you haven’t read it, go read it. Now!